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It is not the Process, Stupid

ProcessEven though Mickey Mouse is the symbol of Disney theme parks he is not really what these locations are about. Agile methods are similarly known by their novel processes and team ceremonies but these are largely irrelevant distractions from the true focus.

Just as Disney is all about manufacturing a positive visitor experience through detailed buildings, social engineering and extensive staff “character” training; agile methods are really about creating a social framework where effective work can be accomplished. This social framework will vary from project to project and enterprise to enterprise. It is a problem solving exercise like building a custom galley kitchen inside a boat not a standardization exercise like force fitting IKEA kitchen cabinets.

I realize that by using analogies to Disneyland and IKEA so early in an article many readers may assume I have finally lost the plot but after 20 years of practicing agile I have had enough with rote methods implementation and attempts to scale through process training that fail. To me agile is about process as much as Disney theme parks are about Mickey Mouse. Yes, they are an easily identifiable symbol, a short cut to identification, but far removed from what the real focus is.

In fact Mickey Mouse cartoons kind of suck and most people would be hard pressed to think of a good one. However, luckily for Disney that is not the point, their real goal is to capture imagination and allow people to explore fantasy environments while spending lots of money, hopefully as part of a pleasurable experience so they will come back and also tell their friends.

Agile methods aim to shorten the time to value and build high quality, positively received products or services by intelligently adjusting behaviors and employing good construction practices. The activities commonly used to do this include:

Sense making – agree information gathering steps and prioritize exploratory work

Short Build / Feedback cycles – iterate through short cycles of Planning, Exploring, Learning and Adapting

Conesus gathering - collaboratively gain consensus on direction, approach and decisions

Prioritization – build mindful to risk reduction and business value

Results oriented reporting – use metrics based on accepted work that give meaningful indicators to likely completion rates

Respect and empowerment – engage in respectful practices that encourage information sharing and organizational rather than personal optimization

None of these things say we need two week iterations, retrospectives or daily stand up meetings. Those tools are suggested practices to start encouraging some of the right behavior, but pursuing them or measuring them misses the real point. Companies that attempt agile transformations through process training typically fail and it is like assessing a Disney theme park by asking “Does everyone have their Mickey Mouse ears?”

I am lucky to work with an agile team that has been together for 7 years. Not that it has taken us that long to finish a project, but instead the business sees the benefits of a high performing team and keeps bringing us new projects to undertake.

[The whole idea of bringing projects to established high performing teams could be the subject of another post . Instead of creating new teams per project and going through the Tuckman stages of Forming, Storming, Norming then hoping to get to Performing, using existing high performing teams bring many benefits.]

The team is the best I have worked with and won a PMI Project of the Year award for the first project they completed. Yet I cannot remember the last time we had a stand up meeting or retrospective. We dropped two week iterations in favor of a continuous pull of features and use cycle time in lieu of velocity or detailed estimation based on points or days. So is the team still agile? An outside observer looking for process or ceremonies might say No; I would say You Betcha! The team embodies the sense making, iterative, consensus driven concepts implicitly. Techniques like prioritization, results oriented reporting and empowerment are baked into every conversation and action.

It would feel weird to wait until the end of a sprint to discuss adaptation of process. In fact the notion of a sprint seems an artificially restrictive and wasteful construct to manufacture. Inter team communications are too important to wait for a daily stand up meeting and team members get an equal say in decisions and spend lots of time in healthy debate, both face to face and with remote team members.

The set up is not perfect and still has room for growth. We could do better at interacting with other groups and our tendency to “fly-under-the-radar” to avoid delays for approvals from other groups also means we miss opportunities to share success stories and spread effective practices to other departments as well as we could. Yet on the whole the group is very effective.

Skills acquisition is often described using the “Shu”, “Ha”, “Ri” progression. In this model new practitioners start with obeying the rules (shu, which means to keep, protect, or maintain), then consciously moving away from the rules (ha, which means to detach or break free), and finally unconsciously finding an individual path (ri, which means to go beyond or transcend).

My point is that agile is not process following. Success is not methods replication, it is not really gaining an agile mindset either, that’s too insular and individual; instead it is creating a working ecosystem for your environment. The ecosystem may have activities that could be labeled as “processes”, but true processes are designed to resist change, they are like robust pipes that force compliance on items that vary. Activities and behaviors are more open to change and support it where it makes sense.

There are some popular tests to gauge if a team or project is truly agile. The Nokia Test and the Scrum Test are good starting points but they still ask if ceremonies like daily stand ups and constructs like iterations exist. These questions miss the true intent of these practices and bring focus to the process. Yet the process is not important and may/should change over time as a team develops, or be adapted to better suit a client. So it is better to separate the process from the behavior we are really trying to assess.

The following questions do not dictate what process to use but look for signs of a healthy, productive project environment.

  1. Does the business value what is being delivering and want to continue with the same group?
  2. Is the team still improving and learning as it works?
  3. Are the increments of delivered work frequent and of a high quality?
  4. Is the project ecosystem healthy?
  5. Is the system receptive to change?

Thinking of behavior and capability rather than process conformance will help organizations deploy and scale their agile adoptions. It might be easier to measure process adoption than underlying competency, but like associating Disney with Mickey Mouse it is not really about the process.

[I first published this article at here]


santosh pawar

Excellent article and I think this is the real intent of agile. However in my experience to answer those questions and to be right in the answers is a big challenge, especially because it's rare that teams stay for years together. Also the factors like business value and learning, improvements need very high visibility into selling of it. This is not easily available and quantifiable and hence may not have appropriate metrics. I think it's true the intent should not be lost but the process check points are one way of determining if such behavior exists. It's very true that it cannot establish that it does. While the process related questions are answered teams should be pushed to think along lines of the behavior and try to attain that state of process independence and the behavior should become a habit.

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